Judge Victor Valdivia suggests that this DVD be renamed Down the Toilet: The Money That Obsessive Dylan Fans Will Spend on Anything with His Name on It.
"I used to get crushes on these poets and be all into, like, their words and everything."—Singer Jolie Holland
Down the Tracks is one of the worst DVDs ever made about music. Director Stephen Gammond ostensibly means to educate Bob Dylan fans about the roots of his music but Down the Tracks is so full of pointless nattering that you'll actually feel dumber for having watched it.
Down the Tracks discusses the blues, folk, and country origins and influences that shaped Dylan's songwriting and singing—and does it ever discuss them. There's no shortage of writers, journalists, experts, biographers, poets, musicians, singers, and general blowhards to pontificate ceaselessly, torrentially, about who Dylan's heroes probably were and why he liked them. They all talk and talk and talk some more, and then they fill in some dead time with some more talk. Do we actually get to hear that music that is so incessantly talked about? Not really. Forget about actually hearing any of Dylan's music, you don't even get to hear much of anyone else's. The DVD cover proclaims that the disc features "the music of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Hank Williams, Leadbelly" and many more. That's true if a) you count one or two very brief snippets of one of those artists or b) you count one or two very brief snippets of obscure musicians performing songs that vaguely sound like one of those artists. That's if you're lucky.
In fact, the case of Blind Willie McTell illustrates just how worthless Down the Tracks is. McTell, a seminal but underappreciated Georgia bluesman, was one of the biggest influences of Dylan's music. Dylan cited him frequently in interviews. He named one of his most legendary and acclaimed songs after McTell. He has covered several of McTell's songs. The pompous chatterboxes here prattle on and on about how important McTell's music is on Dylan's career. Gammond even takes the time to allow Holland, some pouting Greenwich Village sex kitten who's apparently angling to market herself as the folkie Nicole Scherzinger, to show off her ridiculously tacky Blind Willie McTell jacket. How much of McTell's music do we actually get to hear? Ten seconds. That's right, not even one full minute of one of Dylan's most crucial influences on a DVD that's devoted to exploring Dylan's most crucial influences. However, the disc does take several minutes so that Holland can strum her guitar aimlessly and yap on about nothing in particular. So that's a relief.
Indeed, for all the blather, the amount of interesting information or analysis here is meager. Folk legend Pete Seeger is interviewed, but for some reason only gets barely a minute or so of screen time. There are also a couple of very brief old black-and-white film snippets of Seeger and Leadbelly. That's pretty much it. The remaining cast of press hacks, hangers-on, and musicians seem to know little about Dylan outside of his press clippings. They dig very deep and come up with such shattering insights as, "Dylan takes different things and creates something new out of them." Clearly, we can all be thankful that a camera was around to catch golden nuggets like that.
Here's an idea: why not actually play one song in its entirety from even one of the artists so endlessly name-dropped everywhere throughout this disc? One complete song, from Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Blind Willie McTell, or any others would go much farther than all the prattle in explaining why these artists were so influential on Dylan. Their music is so extraordinary that it wouldn't really require much in the way of visual accompaniment. If Gammond was unable to get the rights to this music to play it, then he frankly shouldn't have bothered doing this documentary in the first place. Seeing some badly aging and not especially insightful commentators attempt to explain this music is an extremely poor substitute for hearing it.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix are both satisfactory, as far as that goes. There are no extras, but given that this documentary has barely five minutes of actual value, that's not surprising. In this case, all the material that wasn't good enough to use in the main feature actually was used in the main feature. Which is to say, Down the Tracks is another version of those cheap, godawful music-related DVDs that clog up store shelves frequently, the ones with titles like Led Zeppelin Unauthorized, for which the artists themselves not only don't participate but also won't even license their music. True, Dylan's reclusiveness is so legendary by now that actually seeing him here would be something of a disappointment, but it's hard to understand why the usually reliable Eagle Rock label would put out a product so fourth-rate. Down the Tracks is a complete waste of time and money, and even the staunchest Dylan fan should avoid it like the plague.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Eagle Rock Entertainment
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